Wednesday, August 6, 2014


The following is a rough first draft of the beginning of Peter Quinones' upcoming (2016) book Catch The Nearest Way: Fragmentary Writings on The Macbeth Experience.       This material Copyright 2014 by Peter Quinones.

                              Virginia Woolf, according to Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare, opined that “the truest account of reading Shakespeare would be not to write a book with a beginning, middle, and end; but to collect notes without trying to make them consistent.”  This is very wise advice, and I will try to be faithful to the spirit of it here.
                      Also: having come upon the excellent thesis of aspectuality as presented by Professor Bate, again in The Genius of Shakespeare, one feels a bit more relaxed about questioning the apparent opinion of his Bradleyness, Charles Lamb, and many others that Shakespeare is for reading, not for the theater.  The question of course comes up – what, then, of film?
                        That which constitutes my Macbeth experience, of necessity, the component parts, will differ from that which makes up yours.  In addition to the written play itself I’ve tried to observe four cinematic interpretations – those of Polanski, Casson, Gold, and Goold. (Welles and others, including Kurosawa, I leave alone.) For critical guidance I’ve done very little reading in the slatternly intermezzo we know as Theory; my tendency is instead to read more in the auspices of Loftiness, or the High Lofty, examples of that being perhaps Professor Goddard, Professor Van Doren, Professor Bloom, Critic Hazlitt, etc.  Intense critical work of the real nuts and bolts, hammer and nails kind – the nonpareil, as the cutthroats Macbeth hired to knock off Banquo and Fleance were not the nonpareil – was of course accomplished by Professor Spurgeon in her Shakespeare’s Imagery, and I try to resist the temptation to go to her too too often.  (Clearly this is tongue in cheek.  Anyone at all who is doing work on this subject has to pick and choose from among the jillions of critics and scholars who have contributed.)
 One could probably spend a lifetime trying to get to all the scholarship in existence about Macbeth – every book, every essay – and not succeed.  My own degree of reading is presently stuck in the novice stage. I can’t pretend to be as widely read in Shakespeare himself or in work about him as are, say, the aforementioned Professor Goddard or Scholar Nuttall. (We can report, incidentally, that the latter’s book A New Mimesis contains the golden observation “Shakespeare, who is full of recyclings, never merely repeats himself.”) I could be, as Colin Wilson was with The Outsider, hopelessly out of depth.  Be that as it may, from what I have thus far managed I must say it seems the work is considered by critics to contain immortal messages and eternal truths, characters larger than life, and to be dramatic art of the highest possible quality.  It is in short veritably a superhuman achievement. (In due course we’ll look at what some writers characteristic of the High Lofty have said about it.) Here I am setting my sights perhaps a little lower, going in a different direction that emphasizes not so much the dialogue or the poetry itself or the play’s themes or psychological insight into people but rather what the characters do; and what they do in large measure is deliver and receive messages, news bulletins and reports which, in the main, recipients do not question the veracity of and which, in the main, contain true and accurate information.  Indeed, the words “report” and “news” and their synonyms appear quite often in the play.
            In most of these cases the news delivered concerns happenings that are absolutely essential to the narrative engine of the action and the drama.

Derivationist Kibitzing in criticism is widespread and desirable, of course, but what is on the page – literally the words on the paper – is often more largely revealing of the author’s intentions.   (Derivationist Kibitzing, or DK, we should note, occurs in every quarter.  In what we call Theory, for example, The Tempest becomes a Colonialist Manifesto.  The High Lofty, usually despite denials from those who practice(d) it, is essentially Bardolatry On Steroids – Shakespeare is the absolute best at any and everything, period, the end. For example, Professor Goddard actually claims that no actor can possibly convey the meaning of the sentence “This is the door” as it appears in Macbeth. In his introduction to the Pelican edition of the play Professor Harbage writes that Shakespeare at his sharpest can push up against the boundaries of what is expressible, and that “Some of the speeches seem to express the agony of all mankind”.  Outrageous, unprovable claims such as these are a traditional hallmark of Loftyhood.) Obviously we all know that Shakespeare’s stage directions as they have come down to us are minimal to non existent (a comparison with Eugene O’Neill’s is always good for a smile), so we may frequently want to look at different productions of the same play to help us gauge perhaps if there is any consensus as to what the meaning or intention was. (Although we should acknowledge that some editions actively edit to make this ‘problem’ a bit easier.) As I say, I’ve studied four versions of Macbeth on DVD, and have done that carefully enough to be fully convinced that my claim above about what the play is at least partially about - which is, again, the delivery of news and reports – is accurate, and also that there is great flexibility for interpretation built in.  Professor Bate writes that Romantic idealists felt the plays to be too beautiful on the page to be dirtied up by performances, a view something like that of The Bradster, but I feel that that kind of outlook is quite a bit off the mark, in regard to the cinema, for the following reason: film can illustrate nuances in a way that reading simply cannot.  One can be the most profound, insightful reader in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy and still not be able to intellectualize and visualize with more profit than one would get from viewing a few different cinematic adaptations of the play and comparing them against each other and against Shakespeare’s words.  Additionally, the cinema provides a visual advantage that live theater cannot (an excellent example of this being Frank Finlay’s portrayal of Iago, which was said to underwhelm in the theater but is absolutely magnificent on film).  Now, I understand that the critics of yore didn’t have the cinema in the mix, yet I can’t help but feel that they would have considered it, as they considered the theater, inferior to the study of the text.  (Let me call to mind Professor Goddard’s contemptuous remarks about “some obliterating actress” playing Rosalind in As You Like It and why the “imaginative man” always prefers to read the play.  Lord!  The pseudo-Marxist critical hoosegow, I think, is not the only thing Rosalind’s play needs to be reclaimed from.)
Here are two examples, both from offerings of Macbeth, of the enormous power of the cinema in terms of articulating Shakespeare. 
1)      In Casson’s 1978 film featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company, the early scenes show one of the three witches broken out in an intense feverish sweat, barely able to walk or speak.  She is quite noticeably in this condition; the other two are not.  Much later on – most graphically during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” sequence – McKellen is shown in the same state of heated physical fervor.  The visual implication is unmistakable: the same possessing spirit that gripped her body is now gripping his.  Whether or not we feel this to be a legitimate interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing is beside the point, which is that it would be extremely unlikely for this impression to be gotten solely from reading.
2)      In Jack Gold’s film for the BBC series the sky, in the scene in which Duncan, Banquo and others arrive at Inverness, is lit a brilliant and intense orange behind them.  The gate of the castle stands opened, and the bars of it, sharpened at the ends like swords or spikes, are filmed in the foreground in such a way that they appear to be coming down right on the heads of Banquo and Duncan.  This visual evocation of danger and betrayal anthropomorphizes the castle in a way I don’t think reading alone ever could. 

My belief is that the best way to study Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas today is to supplement reading, both primary and secondary, with repeated study of the various film presentations of any given play (several different film versions of each of most of the major plays are readily available).  That shall be my method in these pieces.  We’ll go through the play Macbeth scene by scene – there are twenty eight in all – and analyze how each of our four films presents each scene.  In conjunction, we’ll use the text as our main course and the scholarly commentary as our spaghetti sauce.

If there be anyone at all in the cosmos with any interest in what I have to say here, they would likely be either a student of literature, a film buff, or a Shakespeare Phreak.  Depending upon one’s orientation, the attitude and approach will vastly differ.  A film buff would be perfectly willing to consider Polanski’s film of Macbeth on the same plane as an aesthetically brilliant but intellectually empty movie such as The Thomas Crown Affair; on the same plane as one of Chabrol’s psychologically acute and weird thrillers; and on the same plane as a Hollywood screwball comedy from the 1930s, and every other kind of film we care to name; a hardcore Shakespeare enthusiast would not be so willing.  In fact, to them to compare all these as equals would probably be heresy.
If I may briefly insert this as well – there are almost always live theater productions of the play going on somewhere.  Even as I write this Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed staging at the Armory has just ended and a Sydney Theater Company production featuring an avant-garde design by Alice Babidge is opening.  I reluctantly omit theater from this discussion simply because it’s hard to consult or refer to after the fact of the live performance is over.
            If I may be permitted to go back to my statement about Macbeth and what it is at least partially about.  Below I present twenty examples from the drama to support my observation and comment briefly.
             Act 1, Scene 2 - Here the bloody man delivers a report – and Duncan actually says “He can report” – about Macbeth’s bravery and courage. 
            A word about this – Duncan seems to be excessively trusting.  Perhaps this is why he is habitually betrayed by people like Cawdor and Macbeth.  It seems a trifle odd to me that, for instance, he is relying on the contingency of a chance, accidental meeting with a wounded soldier for information about how his own army is performing.  Wouldn’t the king have an extensive network of spies and scouts?
            Act 1, Scene 2 – Ross arrives to report of Macbeth’s bravery versus Norway.  Again, Duncan appears to be relying on complete happenstance for this important information.  He doesn’t even recognize Ross, one of his own thanes!
            Act 1, Scene 3 – Here the three witches report to each other.  Largely irrelevant.
            Act 1, Scene 4 – Here Malcolm brings news to Duncan of Cawdor’s execution.  The scene is important because it stresses Duncan’s na├»ve consciousness.  He mentions his “absolute trust” in Cawdor – he is about to place the same in Macbeth, with a worse result. 
            Act 1, Scene 5 – Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth fills her in on the prophecies of the witches and their subsequent coming true.  It’s important to note that the witches’ predictions early on are given full credence while, further on, the importance of their later ones is perhaps not fully appreciated by Macbeth.
            Act 1, Scene 5 – The servant brings Lady Macbeth the news that Duncan will visit that night.  Notice that in this brief conversation both “tidings” and “news” appear, thus strengthening the theme.
            Act 1, Scene 7 - “How now!  What news?”
            Act 2, Scene 2 – Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth the killing of Duncan
            Act 3, Scene 1 – Macbeth reveals (to the audience) through his dialogue with the hired murderers that he has reported news of Banquo’s wrongdoings against the murderers to them, the murderers.  This is the one place where we might wonder if the news report in question is true or not.  It may not be – Banquo does not appear to have been the type for malicious foul play. 
            Act 3, Scene 4 – The Murderer brings the news of Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth.
            Act 3, Scene 6 – The unnamed LORD reports to Lennox that Malcolm and Macduff are in England seeking the aid of Edward.
            Act 4, Scene 1 – The apparitions deliver predictions which we may consider news by this point in the play, though I acknowledge this characterization might be questioned.
            Act 4, Scene 1 – Lennox reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England.
            Act 4, Scene 2 - The messenger arrives to advise Lady Macduff to flee.
            Act 4, Scene 3 – Ross brings Macduff the dreadful news.
            Act 5, Scene 2 – Caithness provides Mentieth will military intelligence.
            Act 5, Scene 3 – “Bring me no more reports.”
            Act 5, Scene 5 - Seyton gives the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
            Act 5, Scene 5 – The messenger reports that Birnam Wood is moving.
            Act 5, Scene 8 – Macduff gives the news that he is not of woman born!

            Thusly, twenty instances of the motif.  This is evidently a world in which delivered messages count for much – or, to be more accurate, at least a play in which they do.   It would be well beyond the scope of my knowledge or expertise about medieval Scotland to state categorically that “This society functioned in large measure on the backs of messengers” although such a statement is probably a good guess.  It is also a likely good guess that much more  could be learned about this play from an intensive study of the literature on the psychology of tyrants and dictators than from wanton, meandering metaphysical speculation about “unseen forces that shape our lives” and so forth.  Granted, very few people who are interested in imaginative literature (I cling stubbornly to the term) either as a career or just casually are going to want to put in the time and effort required to slough through much technical work on said psychology, but I would make a bet further that wide reading on the life and regime of, say, Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein will uncover not a few dispositions to behavior similar to some we witness in Macbeth himself.  If there is “universalism” in literature it’s most likely to be found in an avenue such as this.
            Another possible topic: the psychology of ambition, a subject about which there exists an immense amount of literature.  George H.W. Bush was once asked why he wanted to be President of the United States.  His answer was “For the honor of it all”.  This seems to me to be exactly the kind of ambition the Macbeths exhibit, a sort of ambiguous desire for glory – holding a position just for the sake of holding it, with no higher or more dignified purpose.   Again, I recognize that reading of this sort is not likely to much interest practicioners of the humanities, and we probably don’t have enough information from the text of the play to definitively ascertain the motivation for the Macbeths’ ambition, but it’s pretty clear to me that the Macbeths’ desire to be king and queen is entirely selfish and quite possibly entirely shallow and superficial. It almost resembles Kim Kardashian’s desire for publicity.  It would be useful to know what psychologists who have researched persons with this trait have discovered. 
            With these general remarks in the background I hope I may be granted leeway to  now pass on to my proposed scene by scene, film by film analysis of the play.

            “I come, Graymalkin.”  “Paddock calls.”  “Anon.”  To a diehard purist the cutting of these lines may represent a cardinal sin; to someone acquainted with, but not totally obsessed by, the play it may or may not even be noticed; and to someone counting this film as their first exposure to Macbeth it obviously won’t matter very much at all.  It does, though, signal what will be Polanski’s methodology throughout.  He chooses to omit large chunks of Shakespeare’s dialogue and, regrettably, rearranges it and moves it around in spots as well. (In fairness we should that much other filmed Shakespeare does the same.) Here, the first words the witches speak in this scene are “Fair is foul…” etc., which in the scene as Shakespeare wrote it are the last words they say.  It’s not an effective choice.  The difference between having a character ask the question “When shall we three meet again?” as the leadoff speech on the one hand and having three characters chant a slogan in unison on the other is actually monumental.  In the first case we might immediately think things like, Oh, they meet regularly.  Oh, their preferred meeting conditions are thunder, lightning and rain and not pleasant beach days that are eighty degrees and sunny.  Oh, I wonder why they meet anyway, and so on.  Hearing them chant a song doesn’t produce this kind of reaction.  Shakespeare’s original order is much more effective.
            That said, the opening shots of a beach locale changing colors – first red, then brownish-gray, then blue, with seagulls singing overhead, establish the undeniable visual beauty of the film that Polanksi and his cinematographer Gil Taylor maintain throughout.  The three weird ones walk into the frame from the left, pushing a little cart along in the sand.  They stop, kneel, dig in the sand, and bury a severed human hand with a dagger positioned in it, as well as a noose, in the cool wet earth..  They quickly make a little grave out of this, pouring potions over it and spitting.  The few lines of dialogue are spoken by only two; the youngest, most “attractive” one doesn’t speak at all (she is the one who later flashes her female parts at Macbeth and Banquo after the first prophecies are delivered).  Here they speak calmly, conversationally, almost casually, something they do not do in the other three films.  The wheels of their cart squeak as they go off down the shoreline, and then the screen goes blank as the credits begin to roll against the background noise of the battle where Macbeth unseams Macdonwald. 
            It isn’t easy for me to assess whether or not this clip establishes the mood Shakespeare had in mind for this opening scene.  (Also, we must never forget the personal circumstances under which Polanski was making this film.)  I might point out that Professor Goddard, in The Meaning of Shakespeare, attempts to establish a direct link between the Three Witches and Lady Macbeth, an idea that Polanksi’s visuals do nothing to advance.  In Shakespeare Professor Van Doren states that darkness – or Darkness – prevails in Macbeth’s universe because the witches have willed it to.   In the context of the little twist Polanski throws in as the last scene of his film this observation might be worth exploring.  In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Professor Bloom includes a few remarks about how the very cosmos is all but identical with the Weird Sisters.  Such an idea might be suggested by the grotesque items Polanski has his witches bury. 
            A final observation on this section – Polanski is a strong filmmaker with a very recognizable style, much like Kubrick or Antonioni.  Therefore a serious student is going to want to refer not only to Shakespeare but also to earlier films of this director such as Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby for reference.

Casson’s 1978 film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation is done in a theater-in-the-round; the two opening shots establish and define the boundaries of the playing space first with an overhead shot and then with a ground level shot as the cast members walk onto the stage and sit in a circle.  The camera then pans the faces of the actors in a circular arc. A church organ plays the identical theme it will play later at Macbeth’s coronation.  All this introduces a reflexitivity that Shakespeare didn’t put into the work.  It’s a little bit, though not quite exactly, like the opening of The Taming of the Shrew. 
            Casson’s staging of the scene is deeply interesting.  The three witches emerge from the circle and group together.  One seems to be limping, and she sweats with intense fever (this is the same kind of feverish look McKellen is swathed in from the time of the rituals they perform on him in Act 4, Scene 1, on till the end of the production. – the implication is that the witches put this same spell that is making her sweat into him with their rites).  The witches tremble and chant unintelligibly.  While this is going on we see Macduff (who at this point is unknown to us as Macduff) leading Duncan to an area where he begins to kneel and pray so that we simultaneously see the witches buzzing and humming and Duncan praying.  Duncan kneels and prays with his sons; Macduff, however, doesn’t – he stands, with his arms folded, watching.  Duncan wears a huge cross around his neck, so we might assume he is engaging in Christian prayer.  Thus we are shown Duncan’s Christianity against the witches’ paganism, clashing like two cymbals.  This point is further stressed in later scenes with rituals and dolls. 
            Two of the witches speak calmly; the feverish one wails loudly, almost appearing to be in pain.  Thunder and lightning ripple.
            Recapping: the master strokes here are the fever and the referencing of Christianity via Duncan’s cross necklace and the church music on the soundtrack

Jack Gold’s interpretation, done for the BBC Shakespeare series in the 1980s, is in some ways very traditional and conventional but quite bold and original in others; the opening scene of the play, with the witches, falls into the first category.  It is complete vanilla, total decaf.  The boring credit sequence does, however, do one thing, and that is establish the powerful soundtrack.  All four films we examine here make use of commentative music, but in this film it is truly noteworthy.

Rupert Goold’s 2009 film is even more “movie like” than Polanki’s in that it immediately establishes a strong mise-en-scene in the Cahiers du Cinema sense of the term.  Like Polanski, Goold also cuts Shakespeare’s dialogue and moves it around and, again like Polanski but in a more extreme way, he does so right off the bat, in the first scene, so that the “What bloody man is that?” scene comes first.  Here it’s done for the sake of modernity – the witches appear as nurses in a MASH unit (later they appear as kitchen help in Inverness, participating in the preparation of meals), handling modern medical equipment, but they are anything but nurserly.  In fact, they seem quite menacing.
            The film opens not with them but with a bloody hand opening and closing, then a quick cut to what looks like some stock war footage of canons and soldiers running in fields.  Next, in the same grainy black and white, we see Macbeth and Banquo in the woods, making their way back from the battle.  The three witches are dressed as nuns and, as we said, working as nurses upon the captain.  Their aprons are splattered with blood. 
            The body of the bloody captain convulses on the stretcher.  The narrow tunnel passageway, a minute before buzzing with people and activity, becomes eerily empty.  The captain’s heartbeat stops; he dies.  The first sister asks angrily when they should meet again, roaring the words.  When the third sister says “There to meet with…” she looks directly into the camera with a sinister glare, which is only appropriate since in the next moment she pulls the dead sergeant’s heart out of his chest with her bare hand.
            Each viewer has to decide for themselves to what degree they can accept this experimentalism.  My own inclination is to welcome this sort of risk taking, even if it causes small absurdities.  (An example – “Upon the heath”, yet, they meet with him not on any heath but in an empty banquet room.)   (Additionally, in this case flipping the order of the first two scenes around seems to matter in a way it does not in, for example, Kenneth Branagh’s 1988  production of Twelfth Night for the Thames Shakespeare Collection.)
            Finally, the strategy lends an interesting element to the sisters in the sense that it has them participating in dual realms, both in the real world action of the play (as nurses) and in their traditional role as supernatural predators. 

The number of debates and arguments about the three witches is infinite, and many of them down through the centuries have been of an essentially trivial nature; it does seem to be a no brainer that the Hecate scenes are by Middleton, or at least by someone other than Shakespeare; however I would like to very briefly mention two views from the ranks of the High Lofty as food for thought and then make my own short observation on this scene.   
In Shakespeare Professor Van Doren wrote “Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it.  But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim.  And the weird sisters no less than he are instruments of an evil that employs them both and has roots running farther into darkness than the mind can guess.”  Employs them for what purpose?  To kill Duncan?  Is it that evil employs the sisters to kill Duncan and they subcontract the job out to Macbeth?  Or is it more like evil just wishes to produce random general mayhem with no specific targets in mind?  What is this “evil”, anyway – what kind of ontological status does it have?  What kind of existent is it? 
Critic Hazlitt wrote of the difference between what he took to be Lady Macbeth’s eagerness and anticipation and the witches, who are “…who are equally instrumental in urging Macbeth to his fate for the mere love of mischief, and from a disinterested delight in deformity and cruelty.  They are hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction, because they are themselves unreal, abortive half-existences – who become sublime from their exemption from all human sympathies and contempt for all human affairs, as Lady Macbeth does from the force of her passion!”  We can let this quasi hysterical passage stand alone and speak for itself without a lot of comment, but I find it hard to refrain from remarking on the classification of Lady Macbeth as sublime, and when we get to the appropriate scenes I would like to revisit this as well as A.C.’s discussion of the character of the lady.
Lastly I beg your indulgence to briefly observe that some critics, for example Henry Cunningham (editor of the 1912 edition of the Arden Shakespeare) thought this scene to be spurious on the grounds that it contributes nothing to the drama; others, for example L.C. Knights, opined that this scene establishes a major theme of the play, which in his view is “the reversal of values”.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Macbeth - Royal Shakespeare Company 1978

MACBETH (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1978)

            I’ve considered a couple of other adaptations of Macbeth that are available on DVD here on this blog – the 2009 PBS production, the 1987 BBC one – in some level of detail, and have not ventured much into some other well known efforts such as Orson Welles’ (which is in my view guilty of editing Shakespeare beyond justification, a deed that works in the director’s Othello because of the great beauty of the film, but not here), Roman Polanksi’s (which I will  have some things to say about, eventually) and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Of these major DVDs of the play I suppose this 1978 offering, directed by Philip Casson and produced by Trevor Nunn, is the most theater like – and perhaps nothing can bring out the differences between film and theater, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of both, like Shakespeare can.  This RSC effort requires, and deserves, several careful viewings.  Nuance is the order of the day, from a heavily Christianized Duncan to a Macduff who (silently) assumes the role of chief caretaker and bodyguard to Duncan.
            Here are some observations, by no means exhaustive.

  1. An overhead shot of the playing space begins the film.
  2. The actors appear on stage and take seats in a circular arrangement.  The same church music, on organ, that will play when Macbeth is crowned plays on the soundtrack.  Defining the space this way helps establish boundaries and perspective for the viewer.
  3. The weird sisters emerge from different parts of the circle and join together, chanting and moaning.
  4. Simultaneously Duncan, his sons, and a few lords pray in an indentifiably Christian way.  Notice that Macduff stands with his arms folded while the others pray.  Duncan wears a large cross around his neck and blesses himself with the sign of the cross.  Director Philip Casson in this way makes a comment about ceremony and ritual, clashing Duncan’s Christianity against the witches’ paganism and occult activities.
  5. “What bloody man is that?” 
  6. Greeting Ross.
  7. A truly fascinating take on the scene, and one that helps upset A.C. Bradley type views that Shakespeare exists mainly on the page.  Duncan gives the instruction to tell Macbeth he is now Thane of Cawdor.  Most directors show this as Duncan speaking directly to Ross, however he is speaking the order to Malcolm, who is visibly shaken.  Malcolm hesitates and stammers; Ross gently touches him on the arm and comfortingly says, “I’ll see it done.” A bravura visual reading of the written scene.
  8. Macbeth and Banquo come upon the witches.  This is a powerful Macbeth-Banquo pairing that other productions seem to lack.  McKellen and Woodvine are perfect together in the roles.  The chemistry of a loose, edgy Macbeth with the much more dignified Banquo is stunning.
  9. “Two truths are told…”
  10. “Look how our partner’s rapt.”  The word “rapt” appears often in the early scenes.
  11. The Prince of Cumberland scene is about the only one in which the dark, ominous tone of shadow is replaced with brightness, most especially in the form of Duncan’s robe and the crown.  Notice the light shining on Malcolm but not on Duncan or Macbeth.
  12. She reads the letter and starts in with her “milk of human kindness” fretting.  Dench is much stronger in the role in every other scene than she is in this one.  The circular twirls and the little “Oh!” she throws in don’t seem to me to quite fit.
  13. The lighting of her face is sensational.  Awesome cinematography.
  14. “Our gentle senses.”  Duncan exudes more cluelessness.
  15. “If it were done when tis done…” Professor Peter Saccio, giant of Shakespeare study, says this is the best performance of this passage that he has seen.
  16. Notice the difference in perspective in this shot-reverse shot framing.
  17. “How goes the night, boy?”  Banquo in silhouette.
  18. Off to kill Duncan with his sleeve rolled up.
  19. The Porter scene in this film is quite funny because of the camera movements.  A great touch of humor!
  20. “Thou hast it all now…” Banquo on the cusp.
  21. “Have you considered of my speeches?” Was Banquo really the enemy of these men, or is Macbeth just stirring up trouble?
  22. The best of the cutthroats. 
  23. With the witches a second time.  They use dolls, candles, and tattoos,  again pointing up the ceremonial, ritualistic nature of their practice.
  24. The Macduffs.  A problem – Lady Macduff is too easily identifiable as one of the three witches.  This playing of multiple is true of a few of the cast members.  I understand all the reasons for it, but in the cinema it is problematic.
  25. Malcolm and Macduff plot the attack.
  26. Sleepwalking grief.  “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
  27. One of the weird sisters’ dolls – Macbeth keeps it with him.
  28. A break with the heretofore strictly kept “filmed play” aesthetic.
  29. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” McKellen is presented in a perspiring, fever like manner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Macbeth (BBC, 1987)

            I think that, generally speaking, two things are required to lift a low budget production to greatness – a great script and a recognition on the part of the director that they have to use every means available to them – cutting, framing, acting, music, set design, the dexterity of the camera – to bring the script to life.  One example of this is the 1987 version of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold and starring Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles.
            Let me say – A.C. Bradley, and critics who follow him, take the opinion that Shakespeare, like the novel, is principally a reading experience, more or less to be appreciated on the page.  On this view, staged, the plays are of less interest. I must energetically disagree.  As this production shows, a film can illuminate Shakespeare in incredible ways.  In this filmed version there is so much visual information serving as clarifying commentary that it is virtually impossible to take it all in even after four or five viewings. 
            Some examples – the actors cast as Macduff and Banquo – Ian Hogg and Tony Doyle – are look alikes; the gate at Inverness is used as a symbol, and in one scene the spiked bars on it are framed as a spear coming down on Duncan’s head; as Macbeth, Nicol Williamson employs three or four different voices in an effort to communicate depth psychology (one of the voices, unfortunately, sounds like Linda Blair playing the possessed girl in The Exorcist); the excellent, moody music by Carl Davis is often perfectly matched to the action on the screen in the manner of the old Hollywood studio assembly line films; a tall, prominently displayed Fleance in scenes and ways we usually do not see;  the blazing red sky behind Duncan as he asks “What bloody man is that?” and the wild, vivid orange sky behind him and the others as they arrive at Macbeth’s castle: Jane Lapotaire’s sexually charged interpretation of the “Come, you spirits” scene;  the way that Macbeth’s castle Inverness is shown with no coherent sense, just a place of cold and dark geometry, while the castle where Malcolm and Macduff have their famous scene towards the end is an inviting place of pleasant blue sky and white stone; and I could go on and on.  I guess what I mean to say is that this is a visual MACBETH aimed at an audience that is familiar  with the play already.  It might not be the best version of the work for novices. 
            Here, in the center of this piece, we’ll look at a very few scenes (merely twenty snippets from approximately the first one sixth of the presentation or so) for some visual spice and then continue after that with some more reflection.

The three witches contort, face down, on a slab of rock amidst thunder and lightning.

“What bloody man is that?”

Malcolm implores the bloody man to give his knowledge of the broil. 

The bloody captain – “And well he deserves that name”

Macduff, usually not seen until much later, is here with Duncan on the far left

Banquo and Macbeth first encounter the witches. 

Macbeth and Banquo – Macbeth makes exaggerated, startled double takes roward Banquo during the predictions.

 During Ross’ news that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. 

Brilliant – the camera starts on Macbeth’s face in isolation and slowly pans left until we can see the others in the background.

Banquo thinking as he and Macbeth kneel before Duncan.

A closeup of Banquo as everyone leaves for the meal at Inverness on the fateful night when Macbeth kills Duncan.  You can practically hear the wheels of his mind turning.

Lady Macbeth framed between two spikes.

“Too full of the milk of human kindness…”

Lapotaire plays the scene, and thus establishes the character, in a very sexual way.  Even more astonishing, then, that she would give up her sexuality (“Unsex me here”) for ambition.


“We will speak further.”

Brilliant framing – the spikes on the castle gate look like spears descending on Banquo and Duncan.

A brilliant orange sky at the gate of Inverness.

Fleance is stressed, as he will be at the very end of the film.

            Gold’s proficiency with the camera and the lining up of shots, as well as his obvious knowledge of Shakespeare (this is not the only BBC Shakespeare series he did), are paramount here.  So are the set designs by Jerry Scott, and I’d call attention to four of these in particular.  The blood red sky behind Duncan and entourage in the “What bloody man is that?” scene; the bright orange sky behind the same group as they arrive at Inverness; the cold, dark, formless look of the interior of Inverness; and the light blue sky and bright white stone of the castle where Malcolm and Macduff meet near the end of the play.  All these visual cues are excellent and thought provoking.
            There’s also some interesting degree of emphasis on Banquo here.  I’ve already mentioned his visible thought process during Duncan’s talk, but the scene that begins “Thou hast it now…” is also brilliantly done here, with Banquo upfront, addressing the camera as though it were an aside, and Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and members of the court behind him.  Too, Fleance is very prominent in early scenes, and it is a stroke of genius and interpretation to have him stand by Macbeth’s slain body - the very last  image of the production. 
            There is so much else: the last time we see Duncan alive is at the dinner table, the camera closing in on his kind, gentle countenance.  At a particularly tense moment we see Macbeth’s hands behind his back, nervously twitching.  The three witches, silent and unseen, are on hand to witness Macduff leave for Fife the morning after Duncan’s murder.  I don’t know if, in a filmed presentation, having the ghost of Banquo be represented by an empty chair is the most effective way to stage the scene but Williamson and Lapotaire ace that decision here.  The thrones – hers noticeably smaller, indicating a degree of attention in the furniture making – shown empty at the top of a staircase adorned in a brilliant red carpet, are another beautiful touch.  And the high angle shots from behind Macbeth as he sits on the throne (in one scene with the murderers he hires to off Banquo, in another with the messenger who brings the news that the forest is moving), while being an antiquated cinematic tactic, ring effectively here.  And Carl Davis’ powerful music cannot be overlooked amidst all the powerful visuals.
            Finally we might make a quick observation about Jane Lapotaire’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth, which is sexually explosive from the get go – she whispers “Come, you spirits”, caresses herself, and is almost seducing and beckoning the spirits, making sexual moans while she says “Hold!  Hold!” A most interesting decoding of the role.

            All in all: a truly top notch rendering of the play, even an eye opening one in places.